I met Helen Simpson for a genial pub lunch near Dartmouth Park in North London on the day she received the American edition of In-Flight Entertainment: Stories. She was evidently quite pleased by the book’s spare but elegant design, which looks through an airplane window onto a locket of cerulean sky. I’m tempted to draw comparisons to her stories, many of which peek at other people’s blitheness, or cruelty, or dreams of escape. But nothing in Simpson’s fiction is quite as peaceful as that glimpse of blue. She is perhaps best known for the characterization of contemporary motherhood in her collections, but many of the stories in In-Flight Entertainment confront the prospect of climate change.
Your collections are never quite themed, but they do feel very painstakingly designed. Was that true for In-Flight Entertainment?
In-Flight Entertainment is my little climate-change suite, I suppose. But there are fifteen stories in it, and only five are about climate change. My only rule is to write about what’s interesting to me at the time. It’s a great subject, but it’s very hard to dramatize or to make particular, and not to hector, not to moralize.
There are plenty of experts in these stories. There’s Jeremy in the title story as well as amateur researchers like Angelika in “The Tipping Point” and G in “Diary of an Interesting Year.” They don’t seem to benefit from their knowledge.
Well, it alienates people from them. That’s the trouble. Did you ever watch that episode of The Simpsons shortly after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out? It is spoofed as An Irritating Truth. It is an irritating truth and no one wants to hear someone sounding off about it, and particularly not when they’re about to go on holiday.
Stories are good for uncomfortable things, for uncomfortable subjects. They’re not generally relaxing. Novels are more relaxing. You just give up to the novel, you go into its bath, you submit to it. You don’t with a story. You’re more alert as a reader, and more critical. If it doesn’t grab you by the second sentence, it’s done. Whereas with a novel, people will give it a couple of chapters before they abandon it. Read More